It was a hot, sticky Saturday in July 1949, and like the other B-movie lots around town, the actors, directors and crew at Republic Pictures were working a half-day. On this particular day, they were filming westerns and serials, mostly on the backlot. So, by 1:30 or so, there was a whole posse of cowboy heroes heading down Ventura Boulevard and over Barham to their favorite watering hole, the Smoke House Restaurant across from Warner Bros.
The restaurant had opened in 1946, and it became a Sunday-night treat for my family for years. When I turned 18, the owners presented me with my very own Smoke House credit card — and it was a cardboard card, not plastic. Believe me, I never missed paying my bill at the end of the month, no matter how broke I might have been. I figured that a nice dinner date at the Smoke House might get me an extra kiss at the door! Silly me.
That Saturday in July, the Smoke House’s bar, the biggest in the San Fernando Valley, was filling up fast as the actors from PRC, Lone Star and Monogram joined their compadres from Republic. As my dad (who was there) later told me, the last to arrive was cowboy star Don “Red” Barry. He had stopped, as he did every Saturday, to get $2 worth of gas at the local Texaco station. It was a constant source of amazement to the rest of the cowboys how Don could run his big, gray 1947 Cadillac convertible all week for $2 worth of ethyl. Johnny Mack Brown would have the group in fits of laughter, expounding on how he caught Don feeding a bale of hay into the motor under the hood of his Cad. Bob Steele, who was Don’s neighbor, swore that Don had gotten hold of a secret carburetor from the government. Tim Holt knew he had a magic pill that changed water into gasoline. Through all this and after a few drinks, Don would smile like he had a big secret … and maybe he did!
I had just arrived home from the usual Saturday movie matinee at the El Portal Theatre on Lankershim Boulevard when the doorbell rang. I opened the door for Ward Bond and Victor Jory, who were just a bit early for Dad’s weekly poker game. As they were the first to arrive, I knew what I had to do even before my mom asked me (which was very unusual). In a flash, I was out the door, yelling over my shoulder, “I’ll round up Dad and the guys and be right back.”
Mom went to work getting two big card tables ready. She knew that 10 or 15 of Hollywood’s brightest would soon invade her sunroom. On Saturday, it was the “poker palace.” This had been going on since right after the war, when most of her “boys” came home. Now and again, she’d moan to my dad, “Why don’t you and your cowboy friends go play at someone else’s house?” But I knew she really enjoyed having them over.
Just as I pulled my trusty bike, “Trigger,” from beside the house, I heard the most incredible sound coming down the street. It was like nothing like I had ever heard before, sort of like a P-51 Mustang fighter plane. I ran to the curb as the most wonderful car I had ever seen roared down Valley Spring Lane. Low, long and very loud, it was dark green, with no top. The driver was smiling and waving to me as the car slid to the curb with a low rumble coming from its dual exhausts. Clark Gable, the King of Hollywood, had arrived in his brand-new, first-in-California, six-cylinder Jaguar XK120 roadster. I had only just recently heard the phrase “sports car,” but I knew this sleek wonder was it!
“Where are you off to, kid?” asked Mr. Gable as he lightly revved the big six.
“I’m on my way to the Smoke House to let Dad and the rest of the guys know that you and Mr. Bond and Mr. Jory are here,” I shouted over the roar.
“Hop in and I’ll give you a ride,” said the King.
Poor Trigger hit the dirt like a dead crow, and I was in the red leather passenger’s seat in the blink of a cowboy second.
It was completely lost to me that the last occasion when I spent any real time with Mr. Gable was when I briefly portrayed “Baby Beau Wilkes” in the beloved Gone With the Wind, 10 years before. Believe me, the movie wasn’t on my mind as we roared down the street into the burning sun. He had been to our house on several occasions, but we probably only spoke briefly: “Hi, Mr. Gable,” “Bye, Mr. Gable.” Heck, I was only 10 years old.
Normally, it was just a few blocks from our house to the restaurant. But as soon as the slick roadster headed down Valley Spring and turned left on Cahuenga for the Hollywood Hills, I knew this detour was going to be the ride of my life. Mr. Gable told me that he had just picked up the car that morning and wanted to see what she would do. What she would do was scare me to death! As we roared faster and faster along treacherous, infamous Mulholland Drive, I was terrified, way, way beyond the ability to scream. I did the unthinkable, the impossible, the unbelievable … I peed my gray St. Charles School corduroy pants, big time!
Mr. Gable deftly maneuvered the dark green bullet down the canyon roads and back into the San Fernando Valley. Within minutes, we arrived at the portico of the Smoke House Restaurant. Without saying a word about my embarrassment, Mr. Gable threw me his soft leather sports coat and said quietly, “Put this on, kid. It’s gotten cold and I don’t want your mom mad at me.” (Let’s see, my mom mad at Clark Gable … yeah, sure.)
It was around 400 degrees to me, but I gladly donned the jacket to cover my humiliation. “I’ll be right out with the others; you take care of the car,” said Mr. Gable as he disappeared inside.
Within moments, Hollywood’s heroes surrounded me and my newfound aluminum steed. Thank goodness for the leather jacket! I went on and on to everyone within earshot about my incredible ride — only leaving out, needless to say, one small, unimportant part of an otherwise extraordinary tale of adventure.
And from that fateful summer’s day in 1949, the sound of a raspy six-cylinder engine has been a part of my life. Now, I well understand that a ’48 Plymouth convertible with a flathead six is a far cry from twin overhead cam Jags. But in 1955, my red, dual-exhaust, twin-carb Plymouth also led directly to the Pickwick Drive-In Theater. That’s another story.
When Gone With the Wind was honored as the classic motion picture of all time, people would often ask what I remembered about Mr. Gable. Since I was just a baby at the time of the filming, I would tell the story of the speedy, dark green Jaguar and Mr. Gable’s great kindness to me.
Over 50 years later, as the writer and producer of the Golden Boot Awards, I had the great honor of presenting a Golden Boot to Clark Gable’s son, John Clark Gable, honoring his father’s work in westerns and his 100th birthday. The Golden Boot Awards were established by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Iron Eyes Cody and Clayton Moore to honor all those who made the westerns we grew up with. For 25 years, the Boot honored actors, directors, writers, stuntpeople and executives, and in doing so, raised millions of dollars for the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills. Fortunately, I was able to organize the last, great gathering of Gone With the Wind cast members to present this prestigious award to John Clark Gable.
Throughout his career, Mr. Gable was always an automobile collector, including Duesenbergs, Lagondas, Mercedes, Packards and one white, custom, supercharged 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Did I ever cage a ride in this blown bullet? Yep, but don’t ask!